One of the best teams in the one hundred plus year history of the NHL lasted one week in the playoffs.
The 62-win Tampa Bay Lightning were the popular pick, for obvious reasons, to win the Stanley Cup but after being eliminated by the Columbus Blue Jackets in four-straight games, they’ll now have a few months to mull over what went wrong and what could have been. Yes, reigning Norris trophy winner Victor Hedman missed a pair of games with an injury and was less than 100 percent in the games he did play. Nikita Kucherov missed a game, serving a suspension in Game 3 but the way Columbus played, did it really matter? Unquestionably, the Blue Jackets outplayed the Lightning and deserved every win they got.
What really stood out in this series was the relentless forechecking of the Blue Jackets that caused turnovers and created additional zone time and scoring chances. This was the focus of our Playoff Pre-Scout entering the series and the Blue Jackets executed to perfection in this area all series long.
Their forechecking is what drew the penalty that led to the first goal of Game 4, scored on the ensuing powerplay. The Jackets second goal of the game came off the forecheck as well, with a pair of Columbus players forcing a turnover behind Tampa’s net.
The Blue Jackets also did a terrific job slowing down the Lightning attack by disrupting their transition game in the neutral zone. John Tortorella’s 1-2-2 system clogged the middle of the ice and severely limited Tampa Bay’s ability to attack with speed. Columbus blocked an average of 14.5 passes per game in the neutral zone, best of any playoff team and these active sticks are one reason why the Lightning were limited to a playoff-low amount of scoring chances off-the-rush.
Special teams played a major role in the sweep, as well. Tampa Bay finished the regular season with the best powerplay and penalty kill in the NHL. The Lightning managed just one powerplay goal and went a playoff-worst .500 on the penalty kill, allowing 6 goals in 4 games.
Tampa Bay did a poor job of boxing out in front of the net as the Blue Jackets scored half of their powerplay goals with traffic in front.
This was a huge story in the powerplay success Columbus was able to have. Andrei Vasilevskiy was the biggest reason Tampa Bay had the best PK in the league this season. His penalty kill save percentage ranked 2nd overall and most of Tampa Bay’s key penalty kill metrics that reflect team defense were closer to average than elite. Take Vasilevskiy’s eyes away and you have a chance to do damage and that’s exactly what the Blue Jackets did. Columbus screened Vasilevskiy on 64.7 percent of the shots he faced while shorthanded, more than twice as high as the amount of traffic he faced during the regular season.
Ultimately, the goalie in Columbus’ net was better than the goalie in Tampa’s but that’s not why the Lightning lost in such spectacular fashion. It was a combination of a persistent and effective forecheck, stellar neutral zone defense and a dominant special teams performance. These were all major factors in Columbus pulling off one of the greatest upsets in Stanley Cup playoff history.
The Columbus Blue Jackets first playoff series win in team history will go down in the record books, literally. Never before has a Presidents Trophy winning team been swept in the first round – until now.
4 down, 12 to go for CBJ.